Impacts Of Incarceration On Future Offending Criminology Essay


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There has been considerable discussion regarding the effects of incarceration. With over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States "there is little doubt that there is a substantial incarceration effect." (Piquero and Blumstein 2007). The question central to this discussion is how does incarceration affect the crime rate? The primary purpose of this review is to identify the impacts of incarceration, negative or positive, on future offending.

A brief history of the events that led to incarceration as the popular form of punishment is necessary before discussing the impacts of incarceration on recidivism. During the 1980's and 90's public concern about crime intensified. The public's perception was that crime was spiraling out of control. Faced with escalating costs, limited resources, and increasing incarceration rates criminal justice officials struggled to find a widely accepted approach to reduce crime and recidivism.

The response from the criminal justice system and U.S. corrections was a "get tough" approach that incorporated various forms of punishment and incapacitation. This was contrary to the earlier approach of previous decades, which focused on rehabilitation and treatment: popular theories linked crime to factors such as inequality of power, denial of opportunity, and state labeling. The 1980's however saw a shift in social context; crime was being attributed to individual choice. The new assumption was that incarcerated offenders would be prevented by incapacitation from committing future crimes. For the most part, rehabilitation and treatment were disregarded as effective methods for reducing crime. This shift in policy within the criminal justice system was reflective of a new conservative approach that emphasized placing more restraints and controls on individuals and advocated mass incarceration.

Through the process of this review it became apparent that much of the data and models used to determine the effects of incarceration require more in-depth research and further analyses. Some of the models used rest on assumptions which have not been confirmed by empirical research or have not been carefully studied. This paper reviews relevant studies and examples however a need for more in-depth research into the patterning of criminal careers as well as a call for more current data is required.


There are two general approaches or strategies used to estimate incapacitation effects. The first approach, which is popular among criminologists, focuses on individual offending rates. This approach is also known as a "bottom-up approach" (Sweeten and Apel 2007). Bottom-up approaches study prison effectiveness using individual level data to identify prison effects. These studies typically use arrestee or inmate samples to obtain self-report estimates of their offending frequency in the months prior to criminal justice intervention, justice system processing probabilities, and average sentence lengths. The data is then inserted into established mathematical models to estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to incarceration (Sweeten and Apel 2007).

One such mathematical model is Avi-Itzhak and Shinnar's steady state model. The steady-state model assumes that there is a finite population of offenders who, when free in the community, "commit crimes at a certain rate and remain involved in crime over a certain period of time" (Piquero and Blumstein 2007). Essentially, Avi-Itzhak and Shinnar's steady state model attempts to quantify the amount of crime prevented by incapacitation.

The assumption the model makes is that the larger the fraction of an offender's time spent in prison, the fewer crimes they can accumulate in the community (Piquero and Blumstein 2007). As explained by Piquero and Blumstein, to accomplish this the model basically depends on five factors: 1) the rate at which offenders commit crime when free; 2) the likelihood of an offender being caught and convicted; 3) the likelihood, if convicted, that an offender will receive a prison sentence; 4) the average time spent in prison, and 5) the average time offenders will be involved in crime.

The second approach uses aggregate data to estimate the effect of prison population on crime rates. Centered in economics, this approach involves the use of cross-sectional data at the nation, state, or county level to capture the impact of incarceration (Piquero and Blumstein 2007). This approach is also known as a "top-down approach" (Sweeten and Apel 2007). According to Sweeten and Apel (2007), these studies are uncertain about the specific mechanism by which prisons influence behavior "but are often preferred by policy analysts for their ability to estimate the total effect of imprisonment."

This approach captures impacts of both incapacitation and deterrence and attempts to estimate the total crime reduction associated with increased incarceration. The outcome that is being analyzed is, "an estimate of the effect of changes in the imprisonment rates on changes in the aggregate crime rates, or the elasticity of crime rates with respect to changes in imprisonment rates" (Piquero and Blumstein 2007).


Criticisms of the bottom-up approach are based on the grounds that they typically underestimate the total effects of prison expansion. Sweeten and Apel (2007) explain that this occurs because bottom-up studies ignore deterrence and rehabilitation; impose often unrealistic assumptions on model parameters; neglect juvenile offending which accounts for a sizable portion of crime; and lack precise data.

Sweeten and Apel (2007) add that existing bottom-up studies have typically employed samples of incarcerated offenders with questionable relevance to contemporary circumstances. As explained by Sweeten and Apel (2007) most prior individual level studies base incapacitation estimates on inmates who were incarcerated near the beginning of an unprecedented expansion in U.S. prisons. The justice system is designed to identify and incarcerate the most serious offenders; those who commit the most serious crimes and who do so at a high rate. During the 1980's however incarceration rates jumped because of the inclusion of low level offenders. Therefore, the usefulness of incapacitation studies conducted in the 1980s and earlier is limited and may in fact overestimate the current incapacitative benefit of prison.

Despite these shortcomings, Sweeten and Apel (2007) believe that it is premature to dismiss bottom-up studies altogether. They argue that in contrast to most prior studies, which rely on self-report offending among arrestee or inmate samples, the use of a national probability sample of young offenders with self-report data on criminal behavior would result in more precise data. Using self-report data, Sweeten and Apel (2007) are able to observe behavior that fails to come to the attention of criminal justice authorities.

They argue that with a sample that is young and nationally representative, they can focus on populations that are at high risk for criminal activity and incarceration. By using longitudinal data to identify incarceration risk prospectively, it will allow them to quantify the sample selection biases that are likely to be present in existing arrestee and inmate studies. Further, Sweeten and Apel (2007) believe that by focusing on the first spell of incarceration, they can be sure that their estimate of the prison effect (if any) is measuring incapacitation rather than deterrence or rehabilitation. In their bottom-up studies, they utilize detailed information on justice system processing, family background, schooling, socioeconomic indicators, and numerous other domains. With this data they are able to approach the question of offending frequency from a new empirical angle. As they explain, "existing studies rely exclusively on within-individual variation for estimates of offending frequency" (Seeten and Apel 2007).

Sweeten and Apel (2007) utilize information available on non-incarcerated individuals. As a result they are able to employ matching methods to identify those non-incarcerated individuals who most closely resemble the incarcerated sample. They use this data to generate alternate estimates of offenses prevented through incapacitation (Sweeten and Apel 2007).

With regards to the Avi-Itzhak and Shinnar mathematical model, Piquero and Blumstein (2007) state that more work is needed on their underlying assumptions. This incapacitation model assumed the various input quantities did not change over time; that incapacitating one group of offenders eliminated all offenses that would have been committed by those offenders; that all offenders share common risks of arrest following a crime and of incarceration following arrest; and that all offenders committed crimes at virtually similar rates (Piquero and Blumstein 2007).

Piquero and Blumstein (2007) note that evidence on the assumption of homogeneity of risks of criminal actions are inadequate. Further, few studies suggest that offenders run different risks of being arrested per offense committed, and some evidence indicates that the risk of being arrested and incarcerated is not the same within individual offenders over the course of their careers. Data estimates about the incapacitation effect on crime tend to vary and most are based on old and incomplete estimates of the longitudinal pattern of criminal careers (Piquero and Blumstein 2007).

There is also very little evidence regarding the assumption that the more offenders imprisoned the fewer there are in the general population. According to Piquero and Blumstein (2007) only a few studies have estimated the size of the criminal population. Since every model is as good as the assumptions on which it relies, "these assumptions need to be assessed and relaxed where possible" (Piquero and Blumstein 2007).

The main criticism for the top-down approach or aggregate strategy is that it tries to estimate the total crime reduction associated with increased incarceration without distinguishing between incapacitation and deterrent effects (Piquero and Blumstein 2007). The main focus of this method is usually on changes in policies that lead to changes in the amount of offenders who are incarcerated. This approach confuses the effects of deterrence and incapacitation and cannot obtain a separate measure of incapacitation. It is limited by its use of aggregate crime statistics and the concern over omitted-variable bias (Piquero and Blumstein 2007).


Stemen (2007) states that differences in findings are attributed to important methodological choices that researchers make. According to Stemen (2007), current research has only just begun to address certain issues that would result in a wide range of findings. He identifies the following issues: whether an analysis controls for simultaneity; the level of aggregation used; and the specification of various other factors possibly related to crime rates. He believes the decision to uses various methodologies can produce huge differences in findings which results in researchers and policymakers going in different directions (Stemen 2007).

Piquero and Blumstein (2007) state that most incapacitation studies suggest that prison exerts a significant suppression effect on crime. However, they go on to state that the estimated effects vary from study to study depending on, "the extent of incapacitation, how much the prison population is increased, and the values of the model parameters used" (Piquero and Blumstein 2007).

Most all of the literature I reviewed for this paper was of the consensus that much of the empirical data available was insufficient and out dated. The only inconsistency to this consensus, that I came across, came from Stemen. He stated that, as a result of increases in imprisonment through the 1970s and 1980s, researchers now have a prodigious pool of recent empirical research on the effects of incarceration (Stemen 2007).

It is important to note that much of the literature reviewed for this paper acknowledged that current research on the effects of incarceration on future offending, or recidivism, provides mixed and even contradictory results. Stemen (2007) clearly states that "much of the findings seem to indicate that the impact of incarceration on crime is inconsistent". The question that arises is how policymakers can accurately implement effective policies if the data available to them is so inconsistent. One important point made by Stemen (2007) is that policymakers relying on available empirical research to implement new laws would be wise to develop a slightly different understanding of the literature.


The effectiveness of incarceration on drug offenders is a widely discussed and researched topic. This issue is extremely relevant as drug use and drug related offenses have been identified as the single most important cause of increasing prison populations (King 2009). King (2009) attributes this to the "'war on drugs" that began in the 1980's. The result was a spike in arrests for drug offenses, tougher mandatory penalties of incarceration, and reduced access to parole. Consequently, pressure was put on lawmakers to get tough on drug offenders which forced prison administrators to accommodate a prison population that was significantly increasing.

Stemen (2007) points out that between 1980 and 2005 the number of offenders incarcerated for drug possession in local jails or state prisons increased by more than 1,000%. Spohn and Holleran (2002) indicate that from 1980 to 1996 the percentage of state prisoners incarcerated for drug related offenses nearly quadrupled. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1998) the increase in drug offenders accounted for about three-quarters of the total increase in federal inmates and one-third of the total increase in state inmates from 1980 to 1996. As rising prison costs burden already strained state economies, many policymakers began reevaluating the effectiveness of incarceration as a deterrent for substance abuse and drug related offenses.

There is an abundant supply of literature studying the effects of incarceration on drug offenders. Spohn and Holleran (2002) conducted a study to evaluate the deterrent effect of incarceration on drug offenders. They used data on offenders convicted of felonies in 1993 in Kansas City and compared recidivism rates for offenders sentenced to prison with those of offenders placed on probation. Interestingly, they found no evidence that incarceration reduced recidivism rates. Instead, they found evidence that drug offenders sentenced to prison experienced higher rates of recidivism than those offenders sentenced to probation (Spohn and Holleran 2002).

Much of the research clearly demonstrates that incarceration is not very effective as a deterrent for substance abuse nor is it effective at reducing recidivism among drug offenders. Consequently, many states began looking at alternatives to incarceration in order to reduce staggering costs and assuage the problem of over-crowded prisons. King (2009) identifies Florida as being the first state to implement the first modern drug court in the United States back in 1989. Since then alternative sentencing models for drug offenses have increased rapidly.

King (2009) discusses the success of a few of the most effective state initiated drug policies and supervision programs in the country. Among the most notable are California's Proposition 36 and Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program.

California's Proposition 36 became effective July 2001, and allows drug offenders convicted of a first or second charge drug possession to receive probation with a court-mandated treatment component. Researchers at UCLA conducted an evaluation of the diversion program and concluded that Proposition 36 was very successful at reducing prison costs. More than 30,000 offenders entered treatment under Proposition 36; for those offenders who completed the program, the state saved $4 for every $1 invested (King 2009). The overall impact on California's incarcerated population was substantial.

Hawaii's HOPE (Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) program began in 2004 and targets high risk non-violent drug offenders; those most likely to violate terms of their probation. The program is designed to prevent these high risk drug offenders from entering prison as well as to avoid revocation into custody (King 2009). By responding to violations with swift but modest sanctions the program upholds the premise that swiftness and certainty are linked with compliance more so than severity.

The effectiveness of the HOPE approach is the successful sorting of available substance abuse treatment to the most needy. This conserves limited jail space for those offenders facing the most significant substance abuse challenges. Proponents of the HOPE program argue that targeting high risk drug offenders results in a much better allocation of resources and prevents jurisdictions from sentencing offenders to treatment that do not suffer from substance-abuse disorder.

Overall, the general consensus among researchers is that incarceration and increased penalties do not effectively reduce recidivism rates for drug offenders. More states are currently focusing on alternative sentencing and drug diversion programs which have shown to be much more effective. In fact, within the federal system, the only early-release program in effect is a drug program; the federal Residential Drug Abuse Program RDAP (Demleitner 2009)


As with most incapacitation studies, current studies on the effects of incarceration on sexual offenders attempt to discern the effectiveness of incarceration. Costs associated with incarcerating and supervising offenders are substantial. Money spent on incarcerating sexual offenders leaves less money for other public services. It is important to determine whether incarceration is the most cost effective means of deterrence while also ensuring the public's safety. The question of whether incarceration of sexual offenders reduces reoffending is addressed by Nunes, Firestone, Wexler, Jenson, and Bradford (2007).

Nunes et al. (2007) conducted a study using a sample of 627 adult male sexual offenders to determine the relationship between incarceration and recidivism. A modified version of the Rapid Risk Assessment for Sexual Offense Recidivism was used to assess risk for sexual recidivism. Nunes et al. (2007) claim there was no evidence that the relationship between incarceration and recidivism was mixed up or moderated by risk or that length of incarceration and recidivism were non-linearly associated. Their conclusion was that sentencing sexual offenders to incarceration appears to have little (if any) impact on sexual recidivism.

It is also important to note that inmates are often victims of sexual abuse inside the prison system. Wolf and Siegel (2009) explain that after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, sexual assault in the prison system has received more research attention.

Although the rates of sexual victimization in the prison system vary considerably, a conservative average of prison sexual assault was estimated at 1.9% (Wolf and Siegel 2009).

Research conducted by Wolf and Siegel (2009) show rates of victimization for male and female inmates by perpetrator type and form of victimization. Data for these estimates are based on a random sample of approximately 7,500 inmates housed in 12 adult male prisons and one adult female prison in a single state. Rates of victimization varied but tended to be higher among the adult male population. These findings are relevant as they speak to the impacts of incarceration on sex offenders. Rehabilitation of sex offenders must be difficult in an environment where sexual assault is probable.

Nunes et al. (2007) explain treatment programs for sexual offenders are more effective at reducing sexual recidivism than incarceration. Their findings support the routine use of alternatives to incarceration with sexual offenders who fall below some minimally acceptable risk level. The benefits of such an approach in terms of cost-saving are obvious.


As incarceration rates increased in the 1970's and 1980's, rates of incarceration for blacks increased faster than any other group (Winnick and Bodkin 2009). In 2000 the incarceration rate for black men was nearly 10% compared to just 1% for white men (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2001). Curiously, the cumulative probability of being incarcerated in America is at 6% for whites, 17% for Latinos, and 32% for blacks (Winnick and Bodkin 2009). These rates can partly be attributed to differences in offending, and differences in the socioeconomic characteristics between blacks and other groups.

Research shows however that after being released from prison, the stain of a criminal record is more difficult to remove for blacks than it is for whites. Moreover, African Americans have been overrepresented in U.S. prisons for at least the past century (Loyd, Burridge, and Mitchelson 2009). In a previous era this disparity was attributed to assumed racial inferiorities such as "simple minds". Recently, scholars have stressed the use of prison as a mechanism of social control (Winnick and Bodkin 2009).

The issue of racial disparity in incarceration in the United States is a widely discussed and debated topic. Research shows that perceptions of the operations of the criminal justice system play a major role in shaping how Americans think about race. Using longitudinal data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Saperstein and Penner (2010) conducted a study that looked at whether being incarcerated affects how individuals perceive their own race as well as how they are perceived by others.

To examine how incarceration affects racial perceptions, Saperstein and Penner (2010) used data from 1979 to 2002. The data used was from a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women who were 14 to 22 years of age. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) included questions regarding racial and or ethnic origin. The respondents stated their origin or descent in 1979, and the race or races they consider themselves to be in 2002.

Saperstein and Penner (2010) believed that respondents who were or had been incarcerated would be more likely to identify as black and less likely to identify as white. Interestingly, their findings supported their hypothesis. They concluded that incarceration leads to an increase in the likelihood of self-identifying as black and a decrease in the likelihood of self-identifying as white. This significant conclusion suggests that, "race is not a fixed characteristic of individuals but is flexible and continually negotiated in everyday interactions" (Saperstein and Penner 2010). This is significant as it shows that being incarcerated can change the racial perceptions of an individual.

Saperstein and Penner (2010) use the famous example of the darkening of O.J. Simpson's mug shot on the cover of Time magazine in 1994. The criminal image of O. J. Simpson apparently needed to be blacker than the idolized professional athlete and TV star. Becoming the prime suspect in two murders apparently "blackened" Simpson in the minds of the American public. This example as Saperstein and Penner (2010) explain shows how a change in status, particularly within the criminal justice system, can affect the perception of one's race.

The analyses put forth by Saperstein and Penner (2010) show not only that race is socially constructed but that the criminal justice system can effectively create notions of race. This is done by affecting the experiences of certain racial groups and not others, by shaping the stereotypes, and images around what race signifies. Saperstein and Penner's (2010) study demonstrates that the impacts of incarceration among non-whites can change both racial self-identification and classification by others.


Research shows that incarceration of mentally ill offenders does not reduce recidivism nor does it function as an effective means of rehabilitation (Kondo 2001). Kondo (2001) explains that mentally ill offenders are often trapped in a "revolving door" of petty crime that starts with incarceration, release, homelessness, and often ends in re-imprisonment.

Our jails are quickly becoming our largest mental health facilities. Many of those incarcerated belong in state hospitals however crowded jails and prisons are often utilized instead of mental hospitals. Why is this occurring? Kondo (2001) gives one example of a California county jail that reported 250,000 new bookings and 21 million meals each year simply because local government was unable to meet the needs of the mentally ill.

There are roughly 210,000 severely mentally ill offenders incarcerated in federal and state prisons and jails (Kondo 2001). According to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) at least 7% of jail inmates and 14% of prison inmates suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression. A recent United States Department of Justice survey revealed similar data. About 10% of prison and jail inmates reported some form of mental condition (Kondo 2001). Ten percent of these mentally ill offenders admitted they had previously been in a mental hospital or program.

Kondo (2001) explores the establishment of more mental health courts (MHCTs) as a partial solution to the revolving door existence that the mentally ill have been experiencing. He suggests mental health specialty courts could be an effective method in alleviating the costly and ineffective incarceration approach.

Many view incarceration of the mentally ill as an injustice. Further, the impact of incarceration on the lives of mentally ill offenders may be harmful (Kondo 2001). NAMI reports that conditions in jails and prisons are often inadequate for people with severe mental illnesses. Kondo (2001) explains that for many of the mentally ill, incarceration may lead to neglect of medical problems, solitary confinement for reasons the offender may not understand, victimization by rape and physical assault, or even suicide.

Researchers agree that prisons and jails are not equipped to effectively treat offenders with mental disorders. Most correctional facilities do not have qualified mental health professionals available that could recognize and respond to the needs of inmates experiencing "severe psychiatric symptoms" (Kondo 2001). According to Kondo (2001) correctional facilities often respond to psychotic inmates by punishing them. Placing these types of offenders in physical restraints or isolation cells can cause more damage. Severely mentally ill Inmates usually do not have access to newer drugs because of costs. Ultimately, Kondo (2001) argues that federal and state prisons usually do not have adequate rehabilitative services available to inmates with severe mental illnesses that would be essential to their successful transition back into society.


The impact of incarceration on future offending remains a controversial issue. Studies conducted since the late 1980s have produced effects that vary considerably (Spelman 2008). Spelman (2008) identifies that some researchers found that increasing prison populations would cause crime rates to go up in many states, where as some researchers confidently recommend further prison construction as a cost-effective means of crime control; others just as confidently recommend reductions in the prison population.

Stemen (2007) explains that much of the current analyses are in consensus that increased incarceration rates have some effect on reducing crime; however the magnitude of that impact is uncertain (Stemen 2007). Current data shows that a 10% increase in incarceration only reflects a 2% to 4% percent decrease in crime (Stemen 2007). Further, most researches appear to be in agreement that a further growth in incarceration will prevent less crimes, if any, than past increases did; additionally it will cost taxpayers a great deal more to achieve.

Although a substantial amount of research seems to confirm a relationship between increased incarceration rates and lower crime rates, Stemen (2007) points out that recent studies vary in their findings about how positive and/or strong this relationship is or in some cases, if it really exists at all (Stemen 2008). By using national level data, some researchers have found that a 10% higher incarceration rate reflects anywhere from a 9% to a 22% lower crime rate. Other analyses using state level data found a much weaker reflection, concluding that a 10% increase in incarceration reflects a crime rate anywhere from 0.11% to 4% lower. Other estimates using studies from county level data show a crime rate difference in the range of 2% to 4%. Stemen (2007) points out that several studies have concluded that there is no relationship between crime rates and incarceration rates. In Fact, one study found that states with existing high incarceration rates saw higher crime rates when incarceration rates were increased (Stemen 2007).

When looking at the impacts of incarceration on future offending it is also important to consider new research that suggests that in certain neighborhoods, higher incarceration rates can actually lead to an increase in crime rates. Stemen (2007) suggests that high rates of imprisonment can break down the family and social bonds that would be required to steer people away from crime. By removing adults who would otherwise nurture children, and deprive communities of income, it is possible to increase crime rates.

Supporters of incapacitation use the findings that support their views as confirmation that incarceration is effective. Using current data, supporters can argue that every 10% increase in incarceration rates will result in a 2% to 4% decrease in crime rates. Opponents of incapacitation use the findings as confirmation that incarceration is not an effective strategy for reducing crime rates (Stemen 2007).


It is apparent that much more research and empirical data is needed in order to better understand the wide ranging impacts of incarceration on future offending. Researchers are just now able to study the various impacts of incarceration as a result of data that has recently become available. Although data does reveal that there is some relationship between incarceration and recidivism, it appears as though the current research does not conclusively show that incarceration is a cost effective means of reducing crime rates. As Spelman (2008) stated, proponents of incarceration can find data to support their argument and opponents of incarceration can find data to support theirs.

Arguably, incarceration has not had the desired effect on crime rates proponents have claimed it would. In fact, some researches claim that prison has criminogenic effects on offenders. One thing is clear however and that is incarceration of specific offenders has had a negative impact. Sex, drug, and mentally ill offenders require rehabilitation that cannot be adequately given in prison. Furthermore, incarcerating low risk offenders only works to fill already over-crowded prisons. Data clearly shows that rehabilitation, high supervision, and cognitive behavioral therapy are more effective methods for reducing recidivism among low risk offenders than incapacitation.

No matter what opinion researchers have on incarceration, today most agree that the United States cannot sustain the level of prison population growth that we have been experiencing. Over-crowded prisons and rising costs have forced policymakers and researches from both ends of the spectrum to consider alternatives to incarceration.

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